Barack Obama seems to be following a dirty legacy when it
comes to his official energy policy, a policy that has left Appalachia with
fewer mountaintops every year.
The price of oil per barrel fluctuated dramatically in the
past year, and the U.S.�s dependency on foreign crude has become less stable as
tensions in the Middle East have escalated. Over his long campaign, Obama laid
out his strategy on how to deal with the crisis, which has been exacerbated by
the war in Iraq and the potential confrontation with Iran, not to mention the
oil speculator�s dubious role in the money game. But sadly, Obama has been
echoing old solutions to our new 21st century environmental troubles. Mainly,
where is our energy going to come from if oil supplies dwindle or prices
skyrocket again? And how will this all affect the dire reality of climate
President Obama supports an array of neoliberal strategies
to deal with the country�s volatile energy situation. He is not opposed to the
prospect of nuclear power, endorses capping-and-trading the coal industry�s
pollution output, and supports liquefied coal.
Well, that�s a maybe
on the latter.
�Senator Obama supports . . . investing in technology that
could make coal a clean-burning source of energy,� Obama stated in an email
sent out by his campaign in June 2007. �However, unless and until this
technology is perfected, Senator Obama will not support the development of any
coal-to-liquid fuels unless they emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle
carbon than conventional fuels.�
You did not just read a lofty proclamation from the new
White House change agent, but a well-crafted rationale meant to appease the
environmental movement. Meanwhile, back in his Senate days, Obama�s record
relays a much different position on the issue.
It was only six months before the aforementioned email that
Republican Senator Jim Bunning and Obama introduced the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel
Promotion Act of 2007. The bill, introduced in January 2007, was referred to
the Senate committee on finance and would have amended the Energy Policy Act of
2005 as well as the Energy Policy and Conservation Act to evaluate the
feasibility of including coal-to-oil fuels in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve
and provide incentives for research and plant construction.
Shortly after the introduction of the bill, Tommy Vietor,
Obama�s spokesman, defended the senator�s proposal, �Illinois basin coal has
more untapped energy potential than the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait
combined. Senator Obama believes it is crucial that we invest in technologies
to use these resources to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.�
It was at the onset of the Nazi era that coal-to-liquid
technology came to the forefront of modern energy science. In the latter part
of the 1920s, German researchers Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the
initial processes to liquify the dark rock into fuel. The procedure was utilized
throughout World War II by both Germany and Japan. In fact, coal-to-liquid
technology largely fueled Hitler�s bloody campaigns throughout Europe, as
Germany had little petroleum reserves but held vast amounts of coal deposits
throughout the country. Not too unlike the United States� fossil fuel conundrum
By 1930, Fischer and Tropsch had applied for several U.S.
patents, yet it wasn�t until earlier last summer that the first U.S.
coal-to-liquid plant was set for construction in West Virginia. But while
liquid coal may help replace petroleum-based fossil fuels, it is certainly not
an answer to global warming.
�The total emissions rate for oil and gas fuels is about 27
pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon, counting both production and use,� states
the Natural Resource Defense Council. �[T]he estimated total emissions from
coal-derived fuel is more like 50 pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon -- nearly
twice as much.�
Has Obama had a change of heart, or has he just flip-flopped
around like a suffocating trout for political leverage? The answer to that
question may reside along the nuanced path we are getting all too used to
seeing President Obama traverse these days. As his presidential campaign
website read in late October 2008: �Obama will significantly increase the
resources devoted to the commercialization and deployment of low-carbon coal
technologies. Obama will consider whatever policy tools are necessary,
including standards that ban new traditional coal facilities, to ensure that we
move quickly to commercialize and deploy low carbon coal technology.�
The apartheid government of South Africa was the first to
use liquid coal for motor vehicles, and it seems, despite the �low carbon coal�
rhetoric, that Obama may be poised to carry on the dirty legacy of liquid coal.
The move from foreign oil to locally mined coal, �low
carbon� or otherwise (no coal energy has zero carbon emissions), would only
change the dynamics of the U.S.�s massive energy consumption, not its habits,
which is at the heart of our current energy woes.
Plus the coal has to come from somewhere. As a result of our
consumptive lifestyles, the mountaintops of the Appalachia region, from
Tennessee up to the heart of West Virginia, are being ravaged by the coal
industry -- an industry that cares little about the welfare of people or the
land that it is adversely affecting with its industrial mining operations.
The concept of �clean coal� is nothing more than unabashed
The debris from the mining pits, often 500 feet deep,
produce toxic waste that is then dumped into nearby valleys, polluting rivers
and poisoning local communities downstream. No state or federal agencies are
tracking the cumulative effect of the aptly named �mountaintop removal,� where
entire peaks are being blown apart, only to expose tiny seams of the precious
There has been little to no oversight of the wholesale
destruction of these mountains and Obama has not addressed the ruin in any of
his bullet point policy papers on �clean coal.� Any new coal burning
technology, whether it be liquidification or otherwise, would surely rely on
the continuation of such brutal methods of extraction, and carbon output would
still be significant. And it is not just the burning of coal that is damaging to
On December 22, 2008, a coal slurry impoundment at the
Tennessee Valley Authority�s Kingston coal-fired power plant in Harriman,
Tennessee spilled more than 500 million gallons of a combination of toxic coal
ash and water into the Tennessee River.
The epic spill was over 40 times bigger than the Exxon
Valdez in Alaska. Approximately 525 million gallons of black coal ash laden
water flowed into tributaries of the Tennessee River -- the water supply for
Chattanooga and millions of people living downstream in Alabama and Kentucky.
The true adverse effects of the spill are still not known.
The fight in West Virginia to stop mountaintop removal has
been heating up in the past few weeks as 13 radical environmentalists, led my
veteran activist Mike Roselle, protested by chaining themselves to bulldozers
at the Massey Energy Corp. site in Raleigh County on February 3. The group was
arrested and cited for trespassing on private property.
�Trespassing is certainly a serious offense, but destroying
a mountain is more serious,� Roselle said of the arrests. �I am going to be
here until this issue is resolved. This is a serious environmental crisis that
we face [today].�
During his confirmation hearings, U.S. Secretary of the
Interior Ken Salazar was asked how the Obama administration would handle US
�The fact of the matter is it powers much of America and
there are lots of jobs it creates,� said Salazar, who is no foe of the mining
industry. �The challenge is how we create clean coal. I believe that we will
move forward with the funding of some of those demonstration projects so we can
find ways to burn coal that don�t contribute to climate change.�
And so the rhetoric spins.
President Obama may receive high marks from the League of
Conservation Voters and be touted by the Sierra Club for being marginally
better than his predecessor on the environment, but when it comes to his
position on the U.S.�s coal extracting future, the president�s position is not
only wrong, it is absolutely disastrous.
Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left
Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the
editor of the new book Red State
Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press in July 2008.